Monday, October 09, 2006

La trace écrite...writing as religion

I’ve recently returned from a Fulbright orientation in Bordeaux…overall an excellent experience. The reflections which follow are derived from what I saw and heard but to the extent they might be simplistic or distorted I don't wish to attribute them to anyone else...on the other hand if they have merit...

In every lesson there is a hierarchy of experience as well as of knowledge. There are those things which have merely transpired during class time and then there are those things which must be understood to have been the raison d’etre for the time to have passed at all.

In France, a notebook is not a notebook…it is a sacramental object, a cahier de cours. It is in no case a source of paper. Asking a student to tear a page, even a blank one, from his notebook is to ask him to commit an act of desecration. He would rather recopy an entire essay by hand that do such a thing.
A cahier de cours is, first and foremost, an artifact. The student-as-artisan recreates in his cahier that which the teacher has conceptualized and elucidated and, perhaps, elicited as well. It is the sacred duty of each student to render with red, blue and black ink, with highlighters, and with straight edges and glue the sacred scripture known as the “trace écrite”.

In an educational system where writing is a religion, it is the religious practice of the trace écrite that sustains the faith of student and parent alike that something is being taught and their certain knowledge that all will be tested.

The teacher may say many things in the course of a class period, he/she may even write many things on the board, or even distribute things to the students but the French student has been warned to keep his head up, he’s been warned against covert and copious note taking…he has been conditioned to wait patiently for that moment which arrives in every class period when all that has transpired is then framed and put into perspective. When it does arrive, the student opens up his trousse and goes about the business of making art out of what he has witnessed.

The blackboard, a kind of hieroglyphic playground for a lot of American teachers, is the platform on which knowledge is laid out and coolly, professionally dissected. New vocabulary, key concepts. formulations of model sentences. At the proper moment, and only then, students open up their their trousses and break out the tools of their trade (colored pens, straight edge, white out, scissors and they get about the meticulous business of reconstructing the essence (trace écrite) of that day’s lesson in the pages of their notebooks.

The failure on the part of the teacher to provide the “trace” is tantamount to an admission that nothing of substance happened that day. But it is also no better to require students to take notes on all and sundry that transpires …such a lack of discrimination invites the suspicion (which will soon harden into a certainty) that there is no governing logic at work in this teacher’s mind or in his course…an equally damning judgment.

There are, clearly, Cartesian habits of mind that are essential to being (or at least being perceived as being) an effective teacher. Those habits are I think already in place in my arsenal, though they may not be arrayed front and center to the extent required here. I may have to rearrange my mental furniture a bit, a bit of an inconvenience but also an opportunity to live in new digs for awhile.

Then there are the physical, technical habits and skills…and here is where I despair…how to manage a blackboard, how even to write in neat horizontal lines across a blackboard, in neat legible handwriting, how to calibrate the time needed to write on the board versus the time they will need to copy things in their notebooks at the end of the period, and how to graphically code information on the board so as to properly highlight the essential from the nonessential stuff.

I feel sorry for my students who, confronted with my blackboard skills are then required to make something aesthetically acceptable out what I have presented them. Indeed, as I walk up and down the rows watching them I am put to shame by their technical prowess…straight lines everywhere you look, perfect figures. It’s a good thing, I tell myself, that I’m a teacher here and not a student…my notebook would hardly be a work of art, let alone something sacred.


October 9, 2006


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